Homosexual teachers in the St. Louis area are disgusted when
they hear gay jokes, but they say nothing. They get jittery when
spotted marching for gay rights. They avoid questions about their
personal life and talk to reporters about homosexuality only with
Why? They fear losing their jobs.
Except for Rodney Wilson.
Wilson, a history and social studies teacher at Mehlville High
School, told his teen-age students during a class discussion in
March on the Holocaust that he was gay. Wilson, 29, told the class
he would have died because Nazis killed homosexuals.
After he "came out," administrators sent Wilson a memo saying
classroom discussion of "facts and belief of a personal nature" was
"inappropriate conduct for a teacher."
Wilson challenged the district. He won support from the gay
community, teachers, parents and students and, from behind the
scenes, the National Education Association (NEA).
Gay and lesbian teachers find longstanding support from their
unions, including the NEA. Since 1973, the NEA has offered free
legal counsel to teachers harassed or discriminated against because
of sexual orientation.
The NEA continues to support a resolution adopted almost a
decade ago that states "all persons, regardless of sexual
orientation, should be afforded equal opportunity within the public
education system." The union also believes personnel policies and
procedures must protect an individual's rights in relation to his
or her sexual orientation.
On Thursday, the issue came before the Mehlville School Board
after Wilson was featured in a cover story Aug. 3 in the Riverfront
Times. About a dozen Mehlville residents on both sides of the issue
spoke to the board.
"We have nothing against him being gay," said Debbie Povich, a
parent. "We just don't want him to teach it to our kids."
Povich's husband, who spoke to the board, said afterward that
he felt homosexuality was "a deviation. It's unnatural."
Another resident, Joan Ward, said homosexuals had shorter
lifespans. "The body is not meant to be used in that way," she said.
But a few parents like Anne Kasal spoke in support of Wilson.
Kasal said her son, Jason, now 20, is gay and graduated in 1992
from Mehlville High School.
"I really do feel he has the right to say he's gay," Kasal said
in reference to Wilson.
Kasal said she knew a number of other gay teachers in Mehlville
schools, "and they're wonderful teachers," she said.
Both Mehlville Superintendent Robert Rogers and School Board
President Alex Lantos say Wilson, who is nontenured, has a contract
to teach in the coming school year at Mehlville High.
The issue of gay teachers had never come up in Mehlville until
Wilson brought it up. And the board seems ready to let it drop.
Said Rogers: "We expect Mr. Wilson or any other teacher to
teach the appropriate curriculum. I think he needs to follow that
guideline, and he'll be fine."
When asked what he thought of gay teachers, Rogers said, "If
(Wilson) wants to announce he's gay, that's his business." And if
Wilson continues to make that announcement in the classroom?
"That may be a different issue," Rogers said.
Lantos said that regardless of parents' point of view, he
appreciates the concern they have for their children. "I think
every parent has the right to state their opinion," he said.
Wilson intends to stay out of the closet, although he is vague
about whether he will discuss homosexuality in class. Wilson
contends he has not violated any policies of the Mehlville School
District and adds he intends to follow those policies.
"This is purely a free speech issue and an academic freedom
issue," he said.
Wilson finds little company "coming out." Most gay and lesbian
teachers crowd the closet cloaking their sexual orientation.
"It's kind of like the military," said a lesbian teacher at a
public high school in St. Louis County who has hidden her sexual
orientation for the 23 years she has taught in the city and county.
"They're not going to ask, and we're not going to tell."
The area has at least two local homosexual teachers
organizations - a Lesbian Teachers Network started about a year
ago, and a group Wilson has started for gay and lesbian teachers.
Eight people attended Wilson's first meeting, and Wilson says he
hopes to double that number at the next meeting this month.
No one keeps an official count of the number of gay and lesbian
educators. But two gay teachers say they know at least 50 to 100
teachers in the St. Louis area who are homosexual. One of them
estimates that there are "several hundred" gay and lesbian teachers.
Karen M. Harbeck, an education professor at Boston College,
believes that in every school building in America you can expect to
find an average of 2.4 teachers who are gay or lesbian.
Harbeck wrote "Coming Out of the Classroom Closet: Gay and
Lesbian Students, Teachers, and Curricula."
Harbeck said gay and lesbian teachers who read her book write
from as far away as South Africa to say "thank you." And students
across the United States share tales of staying home because they
get beat up at school when other teens discover they are homosexual.
Gay and lesbian educators would like to be open about their
orientation so they could be role models for homosexual students.
"It would be good for them to see that someone they admire and
care about is gay," said a lesbian teacher here. "They can see that
I'm a very normal, run-of-the-mill person who pays my taxes and
And several gay activists believe freedom and tolerance for a
teacher's sexual orientation even could save lives. Harbeck says
one-third of the 5,000 teens who commit suicide each year are
Fear Prompts Hiding
Fear forces homosexual teachers to hide their sexual
orientation or whisper it as a secret to trusted colleagues,
students and parents.
"There is a tacit understanding in school that as long as you
don't come out of the closet, even if people suspect you're
homosexual, you can keep your job," Harbeck said.
Harbeck said Wilson had the courage it takes to come out.
"Rodney got tired of living a lie," said Harbeck, a lawyer who
is hired as a consultant for administrators, principals, counselors
and students on sexual diversity in the classroom. "He got tired of
the faggot jokes. He got tired of trying to be invisible. He got
tired of not feeling like an open person . . . so he came out . . .
and he did it with a lot of dignity."
Harbeck met Wilson at an NEA teachers workshop on homosexuality
in the classroom. She plans to hold a similar workshop here this
fall for educators, students and parents.
One Happy Family
On her classroom desk, a teacher at a public elementary school
in St. Louis County proudly displayed a collage of her family: five
grown children and three grandchildren. One snapshot showed her gay
son with his arm around his lover's waist.
That bothered the teacher's supervisor. The supervisor asked
the teacher to take the photo home and also to remove a red ribbon
the teacher wore on her jacket in support of AIDS research.
"I felt terrible," said the teacher. "I'm proud of all my kids."
The teacher quietly packed up all her photos and took off the
She says teachers who are parents of homosexuals fear that
"coming out" in support of their sons or daughters could cost them
The teacher resents having to stay underground. "Why should we
(parents) of gays and lesbians be closeted when we could be open?"
Quietly, she resists. At recess, when children shout "fag" she
asks them to stop the name-calling. "I tell them I have a gay son,
and I personally don't appreciate that word."
A lesbian teacher in her 20s who teaches at an elementary
school in St. Charles County says she is only "out" to two other
teachers at her school, one of whom also is a lesbian. The teacher,
who requested anonymity, said she, in essence, had been pressured
out of a teaching job at a private school in St. Louis. Although
her departure was voluntary, "I think they wanted me to leave
because I was `out' to too many people at the school."
The teacher said she thought more gay teachers being open would
kill what she called "the two biggest myths" about homosexual
teachers: that gay teachers will try to `recruit' students into the
gay lifestyle or that they will molest students.
"If I could be out, my students wouldn't have a reason to fear
gay and lesbian people," she said. "It would do a lot to dispel
some myths. I have long hair. I don't look like a lot of people
think a lesbian looks."
Today many gays and lesbians find a greater level of acceptance
while in college. A 22-year-old graduate student at Washington
University who is gay said, "I feel like campuses almost everywhere
are more open to homosexuals because there is so much more
diversity than in a small high school."
He says some homosexuals may find that the closet door does not
open and shut but rather revolves.
"Coming out isn't something you do once," said the graduate
student. "It is a process. You go out and in depending on how
comfortable you feel with the topic and whether you want to go
through the process of dealing with the people around you."